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Amid Hacking Concerns, States Switching Back To Paper Ballots

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Paper doesn't seem to matter much anymore. We read news on smartphones. We fill out forms online. Yet when it comes to voting, paper may be more critically important than ever. One reason, of course, security concerns after Russian hacking during the 2016 election. More states are replacing old voting technology with new machines that create a paper trail, but making that switch can be long and expensive. From member station WABE, Johnny Kauffman reports.

CYNTHIA WELCH: You feed it through here.

(SOUNDBITE OF VOTING MACHINE)

JOHNNY KAUFFMAN, BYLINE: Cynthia Welch has a ballot in her hand, a foot-long half sheet of paper. She sticks it in a slot connected to a touch-screen computer. Then Welch chooses between different candidates on the screen.

WELCH: You simply press print card.

KAUFFMAN: The paper comes out with a bar code on top and the names Welch voted for. She verifies it's correct and places it in a ballot box that scans it, counting her vote. These are the new voting machines Georgia is testing in the small city of Conyers. It's for an upcoming municipal election that Welch will oversee. Conyers is about 30 miles southeast of Atlanta.

WELCH: If you can go to the grocery store and get a receipt that show all the items that you purchased, you should be able to get a receipt that show the selections that you have made on your ballot.

KAUFFMAN: For more than a decade, Welch says voters have been asking for paper ballots. But for state and federal elections in Georgia, there is no paper trail. It's the same in Delaware, Louisiana, New Jersey and South Carolina, not to mention large parts of other states says Larry Norden with the Brennan Center for Justice. And that goes against the recommendations of security experts.

LARRY NORDEN: Having the paper ballot and using the paper ballot to reassure people that their votes were counted is going to be critical.

KAUFFMAN: Norden says since the 2016 election, even more states are switching to voting machines with a paper trail. Recently, Virginia decertified the kind of electronic-only machines used in Georgia. And Delaware just put out a bid for machines that used paper. Norden says, if one part of the voting system is compromised or even just questioned, paper can be a backup for audits and recounts.

NORDEN: You have an independent record that you can use to check the machine to make sure that it's accurate.

KAUFFMAN: Election security has been an issue here in Georgia. Passwords for poll workers and voter registration records were left exposed on an unsecured website. That was only one of the incidents. Still, Georgia's secretary of state, Brian Kemp, says testing the new voting machines isn't about the threat of cyberattacks. He says Georgia's current machines are old but are still secure.

BRIAN KEMP: I drove a couple of old cars that are a whole lot easier to figure out technology wise than the new ones, so it doesn't mean that they don't work just as well.

KAUFFMAN: Kemp estimates outfitting the state with new machines would cost tens of millions of dollars. And he says it will be hard to convince the legislature to pay. Larry Norden says finding the money for new voting technology is a big challenge.

NORDEN: The cost of elections is competing against a lot of other really important things that people care about, you know, whether their highways are paved, whether their snow is removed.

KAUFFMAN: But Norden says spending money on paper-voting machines is important to maintaining trust in the country's elections. For NPR News, I'm Johnny Kauffman in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.